Michigan’s moderate Democratic governor gets party’s spotlight

Gretchen Whitmer won Trump-voting Michigan in 2018, promising to ‘fix the damn roads’

Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, who won an open race in 2018 by almost 10 percentage points, represents the type of successful candidate Democrats ran in congressional and statewide races that year: a relatively moderate woman who won in an evenly divided state by focusing on issues like health care, education and infrastructure. (Jeff Kowalsky/AFP via Getty Images file photo)
Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, who won an open race in 2018 by almost 10 percentage points, represents the type of successful candidate Democrats ran in congressional and statewide races that year: a relatively moderate woman who won in an evenly divided state by focusing on issues like health care, education and infrastructure. (Jeff Kowalsky/AFP via Getty Images file photo)
Posted February 4, 2020 at 6:30am

Democratic congressional leaders’ choice of Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer to deliver their response to President Donald Trump’s State of the Union address signals the party is likely to continue the message it rode to victory in 2018 elections across the country.

Whitmer, who won an open race in 2018 by almost 10 percentage points, represents the type of successful candidate Democrats ran in congressional and statewide races that year: a relatively moderate woman who won in an evenly divided state by focusing on issues like health care, education and infrastructure.

Her selection likely shows that Democrats would like to push those issues, against the backdrop of a president involved in a partisan impeachment process, to win back states in the industrial Midwest that will be crucial to winning the Electoral College.

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As “a female, moderate governor in a state that’s really going to be integral to the Democratic Party’s success of taking the White House in 2020,” Whitmer can be seen as “the face” of Democratic gains in 2018, said Aaron Kall, the director of debate at the University of Michigan and editor of a book on State of the Union addresses.

Whitmer’s campaign focused on pocketbook issues, including a commercial in which she says, “It’s time to fix the damn roads.”

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The setting of her response speech, a public high school, also signals Democrats’ desire to showcase action on issues close to home for most voters. Whitmer’s campaign organization said in a fundraising email to supporters that the speech was a chance to “show how Democrats are getting things done for working Americans, their families, and our future generations.”

After Trump won Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin en route to the White House in 2016, Democrats are looking to appeal to the Midwest in 2020.

Midwest sensibility

Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer told reporters the choice was tied to Whitmer’s region and her focus on pocketbook issues.

“She’s from the Midwest,” the New York Democrat said last week. “She speaks to the practical things that working families care about, like ‘fix the roads.’”

Her gender could also highlight a contrast with Republicans. Democrats have long held an edge with women voters, and 2018 races showed that gender gap widening, especially in moderate districts and states that flipped from supporting Trump in 2016 to Democrats in 2018, Kall said.

[States in the Midwest with outsize roles in the 2020 elections]

Just over a year into her term, Whitmer’s home-state record is mixed, Kall said. As a state senator, she led a bipartisan effort with the last governor, Republican Rick Snyder, to expand health care access. But legislative Republicans, who still control the state Legislature, stymied her plan as governor to raise fuel taxes in order to pay for increased road funding.

Michigan Republicans sought to use Whitmer’s failure to deliver on a key campaign promise, as well as support for an expanded state role in health care, as evidence she’s not as effective an administrator as she and Democratic leaders imagine.

“Whitmer has proved that she is no different than the same out-of-touch liberal Democrats determined to sabotage the American dream,” Republican Chairman Laura Cox said in a statement.

Lindsey McPherson and Simone Pathé contributed to this report.